Belarus Gears Up for Election,,1935962_1,00.jpgBy David Marples for

Alyaksandr Lukashenka's support is waning - both domestically and from Russia - and he now looks the the most vulnerable he has done for years. Yet the opposition's failure to unite behind a single candidate still seems set to hand him victory in the upcoming presidential election, David Marples writes for openDemocracy.

The Belarusian Constitution demands that the country must hold the next presidential election by February 2011. The incumbent president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has been in office for 16 years, and most residents, according to a recent opinion poll by Novak, would like to see “a new face.” But can the opposition provide that candidate, and what are the main issues that preoccupy the electorate in the summer of 2010?

At the time of the last election in 2006, the “United Democratic Forces” fielded a single opposition candidate to run against Lukashenka, namely Alyaksandr Milinkevich, an academic from the Hrodna region and without party affiliation. He was not, as turned out, the only opposition leader to run: Alyaksandr Kazulin, former Rector of the Belarusian State University and leader of the Social Democratic Party, also decided to ballot, as did the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Syarhey Haydukevich. The result of that election was that, officially, Lukashenka won with almost 83% of the vote. Most Western countries, however, refused to recognize the election as free and fair. Most memorably, local campaign protesters erected a tent city in Minsk’s central Kastrichnitskaya Square, which was forcibly disbanded after several days.

This time, the United Democratic Forces are divided. Milinkevich will run again, this time from a position as leader of the “Movement for Freedom”. On May 3, he formally announced his candidacy on a pro-Europe platform — “Let’s Make Belarus the True Europe” — that anticipated a neutral state that would maintain good relations with Russia. Three days later, former Chairman of the Parliament Stanislau Shushkevich denounced Milinkevich in a bitter statement, endorsing the leader of the European Belarus movement, Andrei Sannikau.

The list of potential opposition candidates grows with each day. It includes, in addition to Milinkevich and Sannikau, the following: Yaroslau Ramanchuk, head of the research center Mises; Uladzimir Nyaklayeu, leader of the campaign “Speak the Truth!”; Ales Mikhalevich, former Deputy Chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front; Mikalay Statkevich, head of the Narodnaya Hramada Social Democratic Party; Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Party of Communists of Belarus; Uladzimir Kolas, Chairman of the Council of Belarusian Intelligentsia; and Vital Rymasheuski, Co-Chairman of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democratic Party.

And this list is not exhaustive. On May 29, The Belarusian Popular Front held a Congress (Soym) and nominated party activist Ryhor Kastusyou as a candidate. On May 31, Yuri Hlushakou, Deputy Chairman of the Green Party, announced his candidacy on a platform emphasizing environmental concerns and opposition to the proposed nuclear power station planned on the border with Lithuania. In late May, the United Civic Party’s political council met and declared that its candidate would be economist Yaraslau Ramanchuk, rather than party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, who would serve as his Prime Minister should he be successful. Another candidate to emerge in late May was General Valery Fralou, formerly a leader of the Respublika faction in parliament. Fralou stated that he was entering the contest as the only pro-Russian candidate, but that his stance did not preclude good relations with the European Union or indicate a lack of concern for the interests of Belarus. Fralou also ran in the 2006 campaign but failed to collect the obligatory 100,000 signatures and was forced to withdraw.

It is likewise unclear whether Kazulin will throw his support behind Uladzimir Nyaklayeu or run again himself (that is to say, if not barred by the criminal record he acquired as a result of his detention after the events in 2006). Haydukevich too is likely to run again, though he is not a member of the opposition. His candidacy, however, would help to legitimize the election in the eyes of international observers.

Plainly, by advancing so many candidates, the opposition will ensure another victory for Lukashenka. Many will likely fail at the first post—the gathering of 100,000 signatures—or else have problems raising the sort of finances required to stay in the campaign. The mild-mannered intellectual Milinkevich is easily the most credible of the candidates. Yet his 2006 “unified opposition” campaign was slow to start, disappointed many, and actually caused the Belarusian Popular Front to split.

This situation is unfortunate for a number of reasons. Lukashenka, who has stated that there are no major reasons why he would not run again, is facing some serious problems. A year ago, he was seemingly impregnable. Having outmaneuvered his critics and secured a suspension of the travel ban on most of his Cabinet to the European Union, he could be satisfied with the EU’s invitation to Belarus to join the Eastern Partnership. He released the “last” political prisoner (Kazulin), permitted two opposition newspapers (Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva) to be sold at official outlets, and instructed Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski to announce a new privatization programme to attract foreign investment. Lukashenka, so it appeared, had created new opportunities both for himself and his country that would permit it to break out of the Russian orbit, both politically and in terms of economic dependence.

However, the irascible leader could not maintain such a course. There have since been further arrests and harassment of opposition figures, especially of youth activists. On April 6, the pro-presidential youth organization Belarusian Union of Patriotic Youth and war veterans assembled to picket the offices of Narodnaya Volya for “falsifying history” in an article about the Great Patriotic War. The regime has also targeted the Union of Poles and set up an alternative official organization, claiming to represent the country’s 400,000 ethnic Poles. In these crackdowns, the government has deployed the militia and the KGB. The electoral prelude to the presidential elections — the municipal elections held on April 2 — frequently yielded farcical results, with pro-government candidates receiving totals reminiscent of the single-candidate Soviet years, and much of the voting taking place through advance polls.

The relationship with Russia has become pivotal. Lukashenka has used EU compliance to back up a defiant attitude toward Moscow. He has refused to recognize the breakaway republics of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He signed the CSTO Treaty last year only after several delays. He has denounced Russian plans to build new pipelines to European consumers that would circumvent Belarus. He complains bitterly about Russia’s introduction of duties on oil and oil products for Belarus (but not for Kazakhstan, the other partner in the Customs Union that formed earlier this year), and has negotiated an agreement with Venezuela for the import of oil, which will provide up to 5 million tons this year. All these issues suggest a tense relationship with Russia.  Yet hitherto he has always had the assurance that in every new election campaign, he would have the backing of Moscow, which could also be relied upon to recognize the results.

In the 2011 presidential election, Russian backing is not a foregone conclusion. On April 7, an uprising in Biskek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, brought down the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a longtime ally of the United States. During the events, security forces turned machine guns on innocent civilians. Bakiyev fled and was eventually offered asylum, together with his family, by Belarus. Lukashenka appeared in public with Bakiyev and openly encouraged him to return and take part in the Kyrgyz presidential elections. His intervention was surprising but it was also a grave miscalculation. He appeared to assume initially that the West would support such a step. Yet both the United States and Russia gave their blessing to the revolutionary forces and supported the call of the interim Kyrgyz government for the extradition of Bakiyev.

There is a certain irony in the authoritarian leader of Belarus protecting the former victor of the Tulip Revolution. But for Lukashenka the key issue is the deposal of an elected president and its support by major world powers. He has asserted repeatedly that it could not happen in Belarus and that “Russia and the West create a terrible precedent when they support an illegal government that came to power through bloodshed.” More critical, one can surmise, is the fact that Russia and the United States could find common ground.

That same fear is also displayed in Lukashenka’s relations with the EU, particularly with regard to Poland. The recent rapprochement between Poland and Russia—whether destined to be long-lasting temporary—undercuts his balancing act of playing off one neighbour and trading partner with another.  Moreover, the amity has occurred outside the confines of the EU, which in turn is preoccupied with the financial crisis that has affected much of southern Europe.

In a recent interview with Reuters news agency, Lukashenka also maintained that despite some cordial relations over the past year, “the West” is now waiting for the 2011 presidential elections, having failed to reciprocate Belarus’ “hundreds, maybe thousands [of moves] a year”. “What we will not tolerate,” he said, “is for someone to order us around.” The West, in his view, is asking too much of Belarus, such as privatizing factories at low cost or what he terms “breaking the constitutional system” of his country. In short, forthcoming elections have induced his old fears that Western countries will seek his removal and the victory of a more democratic candidate. And for once, they may have genuine support from Russia, which is overtly irritated with the lack of progress toward the Union State, a common currency, and a united front on military-security issues.

Lukashenka has also, unwisely, denied there being an economic crisis in Belarus. It is clear, however, that the automobile industry in particular is operating at about 70% the output level of 2006. Cash reserves are low, and the national debt is approaching 52% of GDP. Last October, Russia refused to advance the final $500 million tranche of a $2 billion stabilization loan. In January 2009, Belarus received a $2.5 billion emergency loan from the IMF, but Lukashenka has asserted that his country will not request further loans. Belarusian residents, long assured of the shock-immunity of Belarus’ unique economic system, took some time to recover from a surprise 20% devaluation of the currency in January 2009. The currency continues to depreciate and is approaching 3,000 Belarusian rubles to the dollar.

The key issues for electorate the key issues remain affordable housing and utility bills. Privatization of property has seen a marked increase in Russian real estate investment with a concomitant rise in prices and rents. Similarly many of the country’s most lucrative businesses have fallen under Russian ownership.

Lukashenka still retains several significant advantages as the new election campaign begins. The Central Election Commission remains in the hands of his ally Lidziya Yarmoshyna. He controls the vast majority of the media, especially television. The militia, the KGB, and the armed forces remain fiercely loyal and wield significant power. Parliament has one or two dissenting MPs, but the majority of deputies remain loyal to the regime (they have little power to change things in any case). The Constitutional Court likewise has been a rubber stamp body since late 1996. While the Ministry of Justice has legalized some political parties—the Movement for Freedom led by Alyaksandr Milinkevich is the best example—it has failed repeatedly to register others, most notably the Young Front and the Christian Democratic Party. The playing field, as before, is far from even.

The longtime president’s key asset, however, is the divided opposition. There is a dire need for unity and agreement on a single candidate, yet less than 10 months before the election — and Yarmoshyna has even hinted that it could be held as early as the fall — about a dozen potential candidates are in the running.

Like its neighbour Ukraine, Belarus during an election campaign will fall under an intense international spotlight, making it difficult for the regime to act in its familiar cavalier fashion toward opponents. It is in a financial dilemma and it is no longer confident of Russian backing for yet another term in office for Belarus’ only president to date. No one would expect even a united opposition candidate to win outright, but he/she could feasibly present an alternative program that would address concerns of residents. In other words, the focus would be not merely issues of future integration with Europe — a peripheral concern at best — but about economic stability, wages, and prices, along with relations with the troublesome enemy-cum-friend, the Russian Federation.